Many rumors never go away and such are the rumors that the Temple treasures that were carried away by the Romans are hidden away in the Vatican basement. Rabbi Harry Moskoff is actively pursuing this myth, trying to determine if it is, in fact, true and if the treasures from the Second Temple in Jerusalem can ever be returned to their rightful owners in time to be used in the Third Temple.
Golden Menorah stolen from Jerusalem
Rabbi Moskoff explored this possibility in his book, The A.R.K Report, suggesting that some artifacts, including the gold Menorah, were being held by the Vatican. Ancient Jewish manuscripts, unique and highly significant to the Jews, were indeed discovered in the subterranean Vatican library. Moskoff cites the still-visible proof offered by the Arch of Titus that the Temple’s vessels were verifiably in Rome at one point in history, though the event depicted in the arch took place several years before the construction of the arch, which was built four centuries before the establishment of the Vatican.
The event depicted in the Arch of Titus is also written about by Josephus Flavius, a first-century Roman-Jewish scholar of priestly descent, who reported that the Temple artifacts were indeed taken to Rome and placed in Vespasian’s Temple of Peace, completed in 75 CE.
Moskoff emphasized that the Vatican was built directly over the Emperor’s Palace. Moskoff notes that according to historical accounts, the Visigoths did not find the Temple Artifacts in Vespasian’s palace., implying that they might have remained hidden there.
“It’s true that the Vatican didn’t actually steal anything from the Temple in Jerusalem,” Rabbi Moskoff emphasized. “It could even be that the Pope himself doesn;t realize what is in there or where it is. But it could be that by default, in the absence of a Jewish state or Temple in Jerusalem, the Vatican inherited the Temple vessels when they discovered them 600 years after the destruction of the Temple.”
The exile of the Temple vessels to Rome is also confirmed by the Talmud (Yoma 57) which tells of several sages including Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (author of the Zohar) who went to pre-Catholic Rome in order to nullify harsh decrees placed on Judea. They ended up being royal guests at Vespasian’s palace when asked to heal his ailing daughter. When they miraculously did heal her, they were afforded the chance to see these extremely holy items the tzitz (priestly headpiece , proving that they were in that place.
5th Century: Rome is sacked
The historic trail of the menorah seems to have been lost during the 5th century. Historians conjecture that the artifact was taken by the Visigoth Vandals who sacked Rome in 455 CE, after which it was melted down and the gold dispersed. But there are no historical accounts from this time relating that event.
In the second half of the 12th century a Spanish Jew known as Benjamin of Tudela made a tour of the known world, traveling as far east as Mesopotamia. He claims in his journal that the Jews of Rome knew that the Temple vessels were hidden in a cave in the Vatican.
In his book, Moskoff interviews a colleague, a rabbinical student who studied medicine at the Vatican University. While there in 2011, a fellow student, a Catholic with access to the Vatican library, offered to allow him to view some of the Temple treasures stored there, including the tzitz, the curtains, and other vessels. The rabbi declined out of concern for ritual purity and fear that viewing the holy articles would cause him harm.
It has also been related that in 1930, the Chief Rabbi of Libya, Rabbi Yitzchak Muhomza, did enter the Vatican and viewed these articles but was not permitted at the time to share this information.
Vatican: Refusing to acknowledge Jewish claim to Jerusalem
In his article titled “The Holy See and Israel,” Dr. Michael A. Calvo suggests that the refusal by the Vatican to return these Temple artifacts is based on their basic refusal to acknowledge Jewish sovereignty in Jerusalem. This is currently being expressed in the Vatican’s refusal to pay taxes on commercial properties they own and operate in Jerusalem. In his paper, Dr. Calvo enumerates the articles believed to be in the Vatican’s possession:
These thefts include Temple candelabra given to Pope Innocent III by Baldwin I after the sacking of Constantinople and the massacre of the Christian Orthodox population; Temple shofars and utensils; garments of the High Priest; the Tzitz (crown); the Nezer (blade); a gold plaque with the words Kodesh le-YHWH (“Dedicated to the Lord”); books of prayer; documents; writings; sacred objects; cultural objects; and many other objets d’art, books, Talmuds, and manuscripts that the Vatican and other churches have appropriated and placed in their own storerooms, libraries, and museums.
These objects are the Jewish People’s national, religious, and cultural heritage. They are Jewish and they belong to Israel, the State of the Jewish people, where more than half the world’s Jews live.
In a recent article in the Jerusalem Post, Moskoff underscores the point, suggesting that the Vatican’s support of the Palestinian demand for an independent state with Jerusalem as its capital is based in a desire to obviate the Jewish claim to the Temple objects.
Excavations under the Vatican
The search for the Temple objects goes on. Rabbi Moskoff also claimed to have evidence suggesting that the British Museum in London has many smaller vessels from Herod’s Temple, specifically copper altar utensils.
He also noted that there are currently archaeological excavations being carried out under St. Peter’s Basilica that may uncover more than the foundations of the Catholic Church.
Getting the vessels returned
The Vatican receives hundreds of letters every year from Jews and non-Jews requesting the vessels be returned to the Jewish People. Though the Vatican responds there is no proof of the Temple vessels being in their possession, requests for their return continue. In a meeting with Pope John Paul II in 1996, Shimon Shitrit, then the Israeli Minister of Religious Affairs requested the Vatican’s aid in searching for the Temple vessels as “a goodwill gesture”. Haaretz reported that “a tense silence hovered over the room after Sheetreet’s request was heard.”
Following Shitrit’s bold appeal, Israel’s Chief Rabbis Yona Metzger and Shlomo Amar made a similar request upon their first visit to the Vatican. This was repeated when then-President Moshe Katsav visited the Vatican. In 2004, the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) sent a team to Rome to search the Vatican storerooms for signs of archaeological artifacts. They reported finding nothing unexpected.
And still, the rumors persist. In 2013, just before the newly-elected Pope Francis came to Israel for his first official visit, Rabbi Yonatan Shtencel, a resident of Jerusalem, made a sensation in the media when he wrote a letter to the Vatican requesting that the Pope take the opportunity to return the golden menorah stolen from the Temple. Shtencel turned to the new Pope as a leader with a “willingness to listen to other nations”.
“It is time for the holy vessels, stolen at the time of these difficult historical events and taken to Rome as spoils of war and remaining to this day in the hands of the Vatican authorities and under your control, to change status,” Rabbi Shtencel wrote. He stated that by doing so, the many years the Vatican had possessed the vessels would change from theft to a “trusteeship” for the Jewish People.
Archbishop Guiseppe Lazzaratto responded, saying the Vatican had given the matter “serious attention”. Though he did not admit the Temple vessels were in the Vatican, neither did he deny it. He reaffirmed the growing affinity between the Church and the Jews, noting that withholding the vessels would go against that trend.
“If you can provide me with any evidence that the sacred vessels are indeed kept in the archives or somewhere else in the Vatican, I will be very pleased to forward your request to the Prefect of the same archives and to Pope Francis himself,” he replied